Games I played in 2021 where I had a good time:
Chicory: A Colorful Tale (2021)
The first half of the game kind of drags. Sure, it's a Zelda-like. Ok, the painting is... something. Yes, there are characters who speak in lowercase and in slang. Alright.
At some point in the last half, I started getting more comfortable with the painting tools. The story started fleshing out the characters. I started vibing. And you know what? Damn, it really works. By the time I finished, I was eagerly exploring the map for the last of the collectibles, and painting for fun, to make things look good.
Ok, on the one hand, I enjoyed myself. This comes from an older cloth of "let's throw in an optional skiing game... now a pirate song... alright, time management sim!", and you get a fun variety.
On the other hand, and maybe this is my fault for playing it back to back with Chicory, there's a pretty straightforward vibe of "I want to be the hero and I'm not". And it's warm and fuzzy and not meanspirited, which through one lens is refreshing, and through another lens (having just played Chicory), is a second teaspoon of pure sugar.
the musical nature of it is very forgiving, the platforming came right up against the edge of my very low skill bar but didn't push me too hard, and that's a neat trick to achieve. the unlockable dances were hilarious. and the composed songs were great. However, the actual act of singing was.... not always the most pleasant thing to hear.
i finished this game a few days ago and I'm just reflecting on what it left me with. The answer isn't a lot, but it also isn't negative. So, you know. A number rating isn't the whole and total picture.
Dicey Dungeons (2019)
I at least i felt like someone was having fun, even if it wasn't always me. i loved the way the very simple idea of rolling a dice gets reinterpreted by all the different abilities, from the "split this into smaller parts" to "roll this exact number" and etc. killer music, too.
i'd grind this during my commute if i still had a commute.
Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom (2018)
It's neat having a kingdom sim running while you are out doing quests because it gives a little extra incentive. It's nice the kingdom building gives rewards to combat. But, the kingdom sim thrives on hiding information behind expensive and unbalanced upgrades. The higglies seem useless. It's hard to keep the item tiers in your head. And the plot is pretty standard (thank god for that skip button!)
I played it purely because I like the blend of kingdom sim + jRPG, and I enjoyed doing quests to recruit new people to my town. If that's not your genre jam-re, you probably won't get far.
In Other Waters (2020)
30min in I was a little bored. 45min in I was hooked. I loved the ecology aspect, which reminded me of Waking Mars. There was a decent scifi story in there as well, but mostly this is a game about exploring a cool ecosystem in a tight 3 hour package with some unique and interesting interfaces.
I will say this game did not have a text speed control option that I found and that drove me up a wall. Please always allow for instant text display.
Heaven's Vault (2019)
An incredible setting, fun sailing, amazingly compelling translation mechanic, and mystifyingly bug-filled experience. Potentially my favorite story game I played this year.
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust (2019)
The range!!! This studio always makes games that tell wonderful, nuanced stories about existing slightly outside of systems, but also: the games are funny as hell. They are weird and delightful and silly and cutting and satirical. Also, mechanically, they are super diverse and do a great job of setting up interesting elements, making you stretch your brain a bit, and then moving on before totally exhausting you.
And yet every time, I spend years agonizing over "am I in the right space to play this yet?" Yeah, man, they're excellent. I should be running towards their latest release, not letting them languish on a backlog.
Psychonauts 2 (2021)
Gosh, yes, this holds up. Absolutely delightful. I'm not quite sure it matches the first game in terms of sheer originality in level design, but I'm not inclined to hold that against this game.
It starts off slow but it's in service of a very cathartic ending. It beautifully illustrates a point about hidden history without being too heavy handed or even judgemental. Ok fine it's a 'walking sim' almost literally but honestly being able to read the historical documents at your own pace and doing incredibly authentic goofy guided museum tours is a good use of the medium so THERE.
Here is the article that made me immediately download and play Blackhaven: Blackhaven Confronts the Truth Behind Historical Whitewashing
Demon's Tilt (2019)
pinball with a ripping soundtrack, and a legible scoring system, and some fun ideas. it's good pinball! i liked it!
i also don't know how much time i want to invest in getting good at pinball. like, definitely some! i got a little better at nudging the table this time around!
but in general, yeah, i set my goals (finish all the rituals on each level) and didn't quite get there (That top level is hard to stay on!) but my score went up impressively. ok! see ya!
tile laying machine goes brrrrrrrrclickclickclick PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 PERFECT +60 (This was my favorite game of the year - relaxing, engrossing, elegant.)
Donut Country (2018)
I would recommend this game to anyone. Sucking stuff into holes is just plain fun. Bumpin music and funny writing complete the package.
I actually finished a roguelike because the “easy” difficulty was truly easy. And good thing, too, because even though the story starts off steeped in technobabble it quickly won me over and I was eager to see it to completion.
The combat was interesting, the factions were distinct, and the art was that chunky pixel style I love so much.
That said, the amount of content seemed low. In one run from beginning to end with no deaths (again, thanks easy mode!) I started to see repeat events. And the interface was clearly built for mobile first, to the point of excluding useful information.
I put off playing this game for a while because I kind of dreaded a slow and joyless ArtGame experience. Instead I got a really tight story told through the lens of a community with awesome characters who I loved, with a bonus moral of "we live alongside nature, not separate from it". It made me laugh, it made me ache (Poor Tunk, my large sad boy), it unsettled me, and it inspired me. Wow! That's a lot of stuff for a videogame to do in 5 hours!
A strangely straightforward story about corporate greed, which was kind of a letdown after the multilayered journey Gone Home took me on. I mean, I liked it. I found sticky notes with numbers on them and then I used those numbers to unlock doors.
Exo One (2021)
something between tiny wings and flower with a wholly extraneous and poorly bolted-on scifi story. I saw the outlines of the story from the first scratchy cutscene and every scene from there merely confirmed my first impressions without adding anything new. Fortunately, tiny wings + flower is basically a perfect combination and the levels themselves were nicely varied without being too frustrating.
The Gunk (2021)
I had fun vacuuming up sludge and restoring the world to a vibrant state. I thought the story was fairly well told and the voice acting was excellent. I think it earned its cliches, including an elevator level fraught with emotional tension and a monochrome walking level at half speed. I loved the music and thought it looked gorgeous.
That said, it didn't really go above and beyond. I wish there was more stuff to scan or more upgrades to get. Yet it knew not to overstay its welcome, so.... Good! Fine! I'd recommend playing it as a comfort game and not expecting to have your mind blown!